2001 : WHAT NOW?

mary_catherine_bateson's picture
Professor Emerita, George Mason University; Visiting Scholar, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College; Author, Composing a Further Life
What Next? End Economic Sanctions

America has long been spared the most painful experience of modern warfare: massive civilian casualties. The terrorist attack on September 11 has taught us what most other nations learned earlier in the century, that no one is safe. Pearl Harbor was a military target and American civilians were safe in their homes and communities through two world wars. We have also been spared that other less dramatic experience of modern warfare, the destruction of infrastructure, with all the dislocation, privation and economic disruption that follow. In earlier wars, the U.S. infrastructure was ramped up, not destroyed, but today significant parts of it are at risk. The terrorist attack has newly taught us how dependent we are on a complex and interconnected infrastructure and the economy is reeling, but we have yet to understand the implications of these new experiences.

The first lesson to learn and act on is not that terrorists are uniquely evil but that all targeting of civilians is immoral. This includes the destruction of infrastructure, which is equivalent to the Biblically prohibited poisoning of wells, the material basis, of survival and the disruption caused by economic sanctions. Economic disruption creates unemployment and lost savings in industrialized nations; in the third world it can create famine and uncontrolled epidemics. The casualties are real. One of the problems with calling our new effort against terrorism a "war" is that it legitimates punishing ordinary people for the crimes of leaders they did not choose. We must not express our anger by retaliating against populations or writing off the "collateral casualties" caused either by bombing or blockade. America learned from the smoldering enmities that followed the civil war and World War I that peace is not founded on vengeance, a lesson expressed in the Marshall Plan. America needs to combine that earlier insight with this new and painful sense of vulnerability.

The appropriate expression of this understanding would begin with the lifting of US economic sanctions in all those places where they have deliberately and apparently bloodlessly eroded the material basis of survival without changing government policies, such as Cuba and Iraq. Above all, Afghanistan, with whose civilians we say we are not at war. Only weapons and weapon building materials should continue to be blocked (and these should be reduced world wide). The "wells" that need to be protected from poison today include infrastructure of all kinds: transport, water purification plants, public health, electricity and basic industry and food production; protecting these includes maintaining communications and education. An appropriate next step would be to join with our allies in the coalition against terrorism in the creation or restoration of essential infrastructures worldwide, especially in the poorest countries which U.S. economists have taken to writing off.

The second lesson is the urgent need to take seriously the full meaning of globalization. Globalization offers huge benefits and huge dangers, and is in any case probably irreversible short of calamity. Today we must add skillful, disciplined terrorism to a list of dangers that includes new infectious diseases transported rapidly around the planet, as well as the dangers of human and environmental exploitation that have been emphasized by the anti-globalization movement. Yet globalization at its best goes far beyond economic interest and must combine respect for the distinctiveness of cultural traditions, religions, and bioregions with the awareness of a radical degree of interdependence and mutual responsibility.

Hard as it seems to realize, America's self interest can no longer be distinguished from that of other nations — not just our traditional allies but our rivals and even our enemies. Recognizing this, the United States must reengage with international efforts like those for arms control and against global warming, as a nation among nations rather than perpetually demanding to be treated as an exception. We need to recognize that we are vulnerable in our homes — and that our home depends on the health and goodwill of the entire planet.